Hakone and Kawaguchiko: A Japan Hour Moment

I used to like watching the show Japan Hour, and tuned in every weekend to catch it on Channel NewsAsia. Every episode will always have this recurring theme: checking into a ryokan, taking a hot spring bath, settling down to a nice dinner and finally tucking into a warm futon.

I’m writing this now on the bus from Kawaguchiko, a town at the foot of Mount Fuji, back to Shinjuku in Tokyo. The contrasts couldn’t be clearer: the former, a sleepy, quiet town which seems to survive on tourists alone; the latter, one of Tokyo’s bustling centres, throbbing with nightlife and activity.

This 3D2nN trip to the Mt Fuji region first took us to Hakone, where we rode a variety of transport including the cable car, ropeway and switchback train up mountains, feasting our eyes on gorgeous views of sulphur pools, rugged mountains, leafless wintry trees, and shimmering lakes.

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And of course Mt Fuji.

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But the best part was definitely our accommodation for the night.

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Lodge Fujimien (Y10,500 per person a night including traditional kaiseki dinner and buffet breakfast, four bus stops or a 20-minute walk from Togendai ropeway station).

I had to navigate through pages of Japanese and compared prices, quality and location through Jalan.net, my favourite site for booking accommodation in Japan. It’s all in Japanese though, but remarkably good for booking accommodation with. And get this – you do not have to pay any deposit, the reservation system in Japan operates on a trust system – if you don’t appear, the dinner the inn has painstakingly prepared is wasted.

Fujimien was a surprise, because the rooms were huge and very modern. I expected less from the photos on the website, but this was one of the rare few times when the actual thing looks better than the photos on the website.

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There was a view of the snow-clad cone of Mt Fuji from the full-length windows. One can sit on the chairs in the balcony, admiring scenery and evoking poetry, whilst sipping green tea (but of course the balcony is too cold in winter, so you’ll have to do that in the room instead).

The restaurant has the same inspiring view.

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Dinner was just above average though, compared to the rest of the accomodations on our trip. But still, this was our first ryokan and we were delighted with what we got.

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Unfortunately I didn’t get a picture containing all the dishes on the table.

We also ordered a sashimi platter (Y3000).

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Breakfast was “viking” style, which the Japanese say for buffet. Maybe because the vikings eat a lot?

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It contained a variety of Japanese and Western dishes.

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Including this very sticky bean thing that I don’t particularly enjoy:

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The second night we stayed at Yamagisi Inn (Y8813 per night per person including dinner with all-you-can-eat sukiyaki and a set breakfast, free pick-up to and from Kawaguchiko station, a 5 min drive away).

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Doesn’t look that great on the outside, a nondescript building squeezed between souveniour shops and other hotels. But the lobby was very spacious and tastefully decorated.

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The service standard at Yamagisi definitely beats Fujimien.

First, there was free pick-up to and from the station. The guy was clad in his ryokan ‘uniform’, kind of like a yukata-type attire.

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This is Kawaguchi-ko station. Probably the station with the most beautiful backdrop in Japan.

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This time we booked a single room for 5 people. It was a little smaller than the room at Fujimien for 3 people, but the onsen and meals were outstanding at this ryokan.

The male and female onsens each had an indoor tub and a rotemburo (outdoor tub). The onsens switched at midnight, so you’ll get to experience a different one in the morning. Soaking in the waters before dinner, I felt totally at ease.

When we took the lift down to the restaurant area, we were surprised immediately when the lift doors opened. One of the kimono-clad waitresses was already there to greet us, bowing to us with a welcoming smile on her face as the lift doors opened. Wow.

We had an entire dining area to ourselves. It felt almost like a banquet as we stepped into the tatami-floored room and closed the sliding screen doors behind us. The tables were laden with so many delicacies that only my growing hunger could deter me from continuously snapping photos of the elaborately-presented dishes.

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The food was great (by now I have totally run out of superlatives to describe Japanese food), but I had to admit that the all-you-can-eat sukiyaki was a little bit too much even for me. I particularly enjoyed the rice and miso soup though. Japanese rice is deservedly famous, because its so sticky and chewy yet the grains don’t clump together. The miso soup at this ryokan was mind-blowing; the broth contained crab meat and tasted especially sweet and fragrant.

Another surprise: when we got out of the dining area, our slippers had already been arranged properly such that we could just slip into them straightaway without having to turn around or anything.

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And when we got back to the room, the futons were already laid out and our untidily-strewn belongings tidied. Talk about good service!

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Breakfast was superb. I’ll let the pictures do the talking but I want to emphasise again that the miso soup at this ryokan is fantastic. I can still remember the taste till now!

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I don’t always get internet connection here (especially free ones), so its hard to update this blog regularly. And another reason is that I’m having so much fun that it’s hard to find the time to type a blog entry. Am actually on the train now to Nagoya from the Kiso Valley, finishing off this blog entry which I started over a week ago.

Note: At time of posting, I’m in Uji, and its been over a week since I wrote that last paragraph! And over two weeks since I started the entry. It’s surprisingly not easy to find WIFI and Internet connection here.